Wednesday, March 30, 2011

E-Readers and E-Kitties and E-Thoughts and E-gads

At first it was a little like admitting to a crack addiction. (Not that I've ever had a crack addiction, Employer Who Might Read This Blog). I'm a writer. I love books. I love bookstores. I understand that we authors don't make anything to speak of from our work. I understand that bookstores are in trouble. But I also am a part of the 21st century, and if I do nothing else in this world well, I sit and watch with the best of 'em.

I watched the music industry decide that people would always buy music in music stores. (How's that Tower Records stock doin' for ya?) Then I watched the music industry decide that only the pre-packaged monster acts would be supported. Then I watched the people who make the music tell them where they can take their studios. At first it was expensive and nearly impossible to make your own CD. Not so anymore. At first, it was nearly impossible to distribute that CD (um, cassette) unless you were affiliated with said Studio. Not so anymore.

And so I watched the publishing industry pretend like this transition has not happened to the music industry. They don't know what to do now, so they seem to be doing a combination of nothing and trying to negotiate higher e-book prices. But amazon beat them to the table and consumers aren't going to pay what the publishers want. Welcome to free enterprise -- you know, that class you had to take in 12th grade? Well, this is how it works. Anyone download an i-tunes song for $5.99? Didn't think so. The world saunters on. E-readers abound. E-books abound. The times, they are a-changin'. 

Is this good for writers? Ultimately, I think so. Right now, it's a giant clusterf&*$(. But it'll shift away from that and people will wonder why they fought it so hard. The Authors Guild is negotiating for greater royalties for e-books. Will it happen? Don't know. But if I want to upload my new book straight to Kindle all on my own, can I do it? Yep. Is this freedom resulting in a lot of crappy e-books? Yep. But that'll shift around too. Gone to an art fair lately? There's a wide range of talent in the world. Literature is no exception.

So back to the crack addiction that I never had. 

I used to read ALL THE TIME. I had books with me everywhere. And then, this pesky thing called a job showed up in my life, and that job involved continuous reading of student work for weeks on end. Last thing I wanted to do was read. Ever. Again. And really, the last thing I wanted to do was read on a computer or screen device since I did that all day long.

Enter e-ink.

Enter devices that were designed to be like a book. A device that dissolves into the background and lets the story come to the forefront. I didn't think it was possible. Books smell good. They have pretty covers. I can walk past my bookshelves at home and say hello to all my friends. Enter Whitney Houston singing "I Will Always Love You." 

I will. Always.

But I have not been reading because my eyes are tired. I am at that over-forty place where the eyes start doing their own things. Reading glasses help, but not much. My eyes still tear up by the end of the day. Reading hurts them. It's really hard to read a book one page a day. 

So under cover of darkness, cloaked in black, I went to Best Buy to touch the Kindle. I went to Barnes and Noble to touch the Nook. And then, making sure no one saw me, I bought the Kindle. I took it home. I downloaded a book. And ...

I read it. 

Easily. No burning eyes. No tearing up. No headaches. I can make the font as big as I want. I can read it in sunlight. I can read it in bed. I can hold it at any angle and read. No glare. 

My e-reader has given me back reading. I have downloaded and finished reading more books in the last six months than the previous six years. True, they're not on my shelf. But they're in my body now, which, at least from my  perspective as a writer, is exactly where I want my books to be in my readers. I don't want them holding up knick knacks on shelves. I want my books read. 

My Kindle helps me read more. As a writer, what could be more important? I don't care how you read my work. I don't care if it's scratched out on tree branches or sent up in smoke signals. Hardcover, paperback, e-book (Sony, Nook, Kindle, Kobo, iPad), audiobook. I don't care. But I want it read.

Books come to life when a reader enters the dream of the story. It doesn't matter what the door looks like. The more accessible and the more variety of doors we can offer as the transoms to our stories, the better chance we have of dancing in the dark with our readers, the better chance we have of our characters continuing to breathe.

I didn't want to do it. But I did, and because I did, I'm dreaming with other authors. I've got other characters in my body. I've got other stories in my cells. I got reading back.

So apparently, what I Will Always Love is stories, not the physical package of a book. 

I didn't think it would be so easy to say good-bye, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to say good-bye to my '77 AMC Spirit that I drove in college, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to get rid of my land line, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to transition from an in-class instructor to a primarily on-line instructor, but it was.

I still feel a little disloyal, but it's passing quickly. Books want to be read too. They're only dead trees until someone opens the cover. It doesn't matter whether the cover is paper or a switch. 

Just read.



Those of us who make the stories are grateful.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Magical Thinking, Reinvention, Shopping and Writing

Here's how I know I'm a writer.

I'm a world-class clothing shopper. Some might call it an addiction, but that's such a nasty word. I don't buy everything. I don't have a compelling urge to buy flatware, or furniture, or cars. But I adore clothes. I love the possibilities of clothing. I've been thinking about this a lot this week as I did my spring cleaning. I was delighted to only have single-digit bags to give away, rather than the 40 plus bags of two summers ago. Whew! Addiction, um, enjoyable fun activity, in reasonable check.

I'm giving away a lot of really great things. Items I loved, most of them still fit (whew, again - weight has not fluctuated 40 pounds in two years). There's nothing wrong with most of them.  I don't wear out my clothes because I simply don't wear them enough to do it. But about every five days, there's a pull to a clothing store that goes off inside. Perhaps this is located where my non-existent biological clock is supposed to be. (Whew, again - much rather have the clothing-shopping clock than the biological clock). If I had kids, I'd have to buy them clothes, which would substantially cut into the amount of clothing I could buy for, um, me, and frankly, I like to think I'm subsidizing the Goodwill shoppers of the world with some pretty fabulous, good quality clothing once a year. (Here's where the fabulous magical thinking part starts to occur.)

I don't think of clothing as a need. I think of clothing as art. So to that end, I'm continually creating and re-creating the canvas. Some people apparently only need five shirts and five pairs of pants. I simply do not understand how that is possible. Kind of like calculus.

But here's how the writing figures in ...

I find myself in a store. Oh, the sparkle! Oh, the mannequins with their fabulously accessorized outfits and really extraordinarily toned arms! Oh, the shoes! And here's where I fall into magic .... I could have the life of the woman who can wear that dress. I could have the feet that could run in those pointy stilettos. I could have the waist that could wear that bracelet as a belt. I could be in Central Park with that silk scarf and that fuschia bag. Oh yes, oh yes, I can.

So then (and here's the important step) I take the dress off the rack. My size is not there. My size is never there on THOSE dresses -- the ones that you see on the skinny mannequins and the Styles section of the New York Times. But, I've fallen so deeply into the wonder of magical thinking that I believe that I may perhaps suddenly have become a size 8 (the largest size, of course, on the rack of THOSE dresses). This is America. Anything is possible. I hold it next to me and some sort of bizarre quantum occurrence happens when I see myself in a mirror holding the dress next to me and I believe that the body I see in the mirror will fit into that dress with room to spare. It's miraculous. Maybe I should take the size 6 too.

Into the dressing room I go, and I've often wondered if there are still security cameras in dressing rooms because the show must be hilarious all day long.  I step into the dress. It's not going to go above my knees. I can tell just by stepping in it. Of course, I knew that before I pulled it off the rack -- the only size 8s I have are feet -- but you know, it's America and anything is possible. 

I could be the woman who wears this dress if I ...

- eat only broccoli and quinoa for the next three weeks
- run to work
- grade papers while running on the treadmill
- run to work with the kettlebell (go up the stairs twice)
- replace my DNA with Natalie Portman's

Excellent. Sold. The most logical of all these thoughts is the DNA replacement. Surely, that's covered under the health insurance plan.

Then it goes home. It's beautiful. I am on my way to Central Park. I am on my way to the National Book Awards. It goes in the closet. The dream is so complete, so full of possibility.

And then the next day, sigh, I remember my beautiful dream, my walk in the park with a parasol, perhaps, and an accessory cat, and I look in the mirror where at least my feet are still a size 8, and I gather the receipt and the dress and the imaginary accessory cat, and go back to the store.

But for a day, I believed it was possible. And that is the place you must get to in your fiction. You must believe 100% in the impossible. In magic. In this world you are creating and these people you are listening to. You must believe it. You can't think it's a joke. You can't think you're kidding yourself. Total immersion. Gotta go there.

But then, you've also got to be able to look at that draft and be realistic about it. What is actually working? What will never work? What was what you wanted to work, rather than what the story wanted? (Ah, the biggie!) In other words, the next day, you've got to be woman enough to take things back to the store, but still, the next time you sit down to write, immerse yourself once again in magic.

Friday, March 11, 2011

How Cursing Became Part of Common Speech

I've been bracing myself for two weeks. I knew I'd have to call. You know who. The BANK. I have to call because the BANK's website is designed by monkeys on steroids. I have to call because I pay my homeowner's insurance myself, rather than have it paid from my mortgage escrow account and apparently this is a concept too difficult to handle on line from THE BIGGEST BANK IN THE F-ING WORLD.

OK. Breathe in. Breathe out. Coffee - two cups. BANK website open. Insurance company website open. Homeowner's policy pulled up. Numbers-a-plenty. Social security card. Property zip code. Mother's maiden name. First school. First best friend. Most annoying customer service center -- oh, wait, that's not an approved security question.

Every March I have to do this. Every March the BANK thinks I have let my homeowner's policy lapse and feels compelled to send me a letter indicating that they will be buying a policy for me and charging me for it. I've never moved my homeowner's policy. I've been with the same insurance carrier for almost twenty years. They automatically renew my policy every year. Funny, how they never seem to forget to automatically deduct the payment from my account -- the account at the same BANK that holds my mortgage.

I would love to renew this policy on the BANK's website, but it is not capable of understanding that I pay the premium myself. But just because it feels like spring today and the daffodils are starting to pop through the frozen earth, I thought I'd try. You know. Just in case. Like today could be the day when the world gives out free chocolate ice cream. Sigh. Today had no free chocolate ice cream.

Coffee. Third cup. OK. Dial. Hello Automated-Female-Person with False Human Inflection.

How can I help you today? Please press or say 1 for account services, 2 for payment services. 


Which account can I help you with? Please press or say 1 for checking, 2 for savings, 3 for mortgage, 4 for credit card.


Thank you. (She's very jolly now) Please enter the last four digits of your social security number followed by the pound sign.


Thank you. Please speak your mother's maiden name.

($*))#((  (How do people who do not know their mother's maiden names manage their daily lives?)

Thank you. Please confirm the zip code of the property you are calling about.


Thank you. How may I assist you today? Please press or say 1 for property insurance, 2 for ....


Thank you. What would you like to do? Please press or say 1 for change or renew policy, 2 for...


Thank you. 

(Here's where we're going to have a problem. I know this Fake Human can't help because I've tried it before. The Fake Human wants to pay my homeowner's insurance from escrow. She's extremely rigid. She could benefit from deep breathing.)

I'd like to speak to a representative.

I'm sorry? I thought I heard you say, (dramatic pause) "I'd like to speak to a representative."


There are many things I can help you with. Frequently, there is a long wait to speak with a customer service representative.

I'd like to speak to a representative.

I'm sorry? I thought I heard you say, "I'd like to speak to a representative." (she's pissed now)


I am capable of providing a wide range of services. Let's begin again. How may I help you? Please press or say 1 for ...

I'd like to speak to a (deep breath, don't swear at the Fake Human) representative.

Did you say you would like to speak to a representative? Please press or say 1 for yes ...


She doesn't even say good-bye. There's a double beep, during which time I am sure she has disconnected me. Within the untenable wait of twenty entire seconds, I am greeted by a gentleman who assures me that customer service is very important to him. How can he help me?

I need to renew my homeowner's policy.

May I have the last four digits of your social security number?

(Refer to conversation with Fake Human for the next series of questions)

Thank you, Ms. Herring. How may I assist you today?

I need to renew my homeowner's policy.

You can do that at www.

Actually, I can't because I pay my premium myself.

Pause. Can I put you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. You said you pay your premium yourself? Do you mean you write the insurance company a check?

No. I mean they deduct my payment automatically from my checking account in your bank. You can pull it up. For the last seven years.

Pause. Can I put  you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. Thanks for holding. You're trying to tell me that your insurance premium is not paid from the escrow account, but that you pay it yourself.


So, you don't forget to pay it?

No. You can check yourself in my checking account in your BIGGESTBANKINTHEF-INGWORLD bank.

Pause. OK. How do you remember to pay it?

I don't have to remember. The insurance company remembers.

May I have the insurance company's number please?


And the policy number?


What is the premium?

$ &&()

Is that even or are there cents?

It's even.

So we'll send a check to the insurance company from the escrow account.

No. I have already paid the premium.

Pause. Can I put you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. So you actually pay the premium yourself.


OK. That is OK. I am sure that is OK.

It's been OK for seven  years.

OK. I am sure that is OK. Let me just ... OK. So, you're all updated, Ms. Herring. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Can you put a note in my account that I pay my premium so I don't have to go through this next year?

Next year you can use to update your policy.

No, I can't.

Oh, right. Because you pay your own premium.


That's very unusual.

OK. So can you put a note in my file?

I'm sorry. There's no field for that. Is there anything else I can help you with?


Thank you for calling BIGGESTBANKINTHEF-INGWORLD. Again, my name is $*(*. Please have a pleasant day.

Until next March ...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How Captain Jack Sparrow Helps Us Write A Story

Warning: Extended Metaphor of Today's Blog May Not Work for All Readers  (but don't deny yourself a little look at the lovely!)

Come on, ya'll. I know I don't have to tell you anything about that picture.

Hello, there, Captain Jack. Yes, indeed. I know you are clearly one of those Stranger Danger folks they told us about in third grade. I know it's never good to be with a man who accessorizes better than I can. I know you've not had proper dental care, you smoke, and I know that you give the same look to all the girls.


And I know it doesn't matter one bit. Because maybe, just this once, that look will be for me. I'll be the one who can change you, Captain Jack. You spend too much time with the skinny girls anyway. You're wounded. You just need someone to love you who understands you. It's me. I promise. We'll run away together to an island. You'll rescue me from cannibals and we'll find ourselves in a strange encounter with a voodoo priestess and after a few swashbuckling moments of fancy and fun, you'll find yourself at the gallows, or about to walk the plank, or about to spend seven years under the sea in the hands of a creepy-weird-monster-creature. It's OK, Captain Jack. I'll wait for you.


I think that when we write, we have a Captain Jack Phase. Let's call it CJP. In the CJP, we do a lot of things we wouldn't do pre-CJP. We do a lot of things we'll wonder about post-CJP.

Here's the Peer-Reviewed-Iowa-Writing-Workshop-Endorsed Captain Jack Theory of writing:

- We follow the prettiest, most bewitching idea. This is not necessarily a problem, until we can no longer see ourselves along the way. The prettiest, most bewitching idea has captured us, and we find ourselves enslaved by the spectacle, so much so we can't tell if there is substance beneath it, and we don't want to do the work to find out because, well, he's just so darn beautiful.

- We let ourselves get tricked, bewitched, befuddled and bewildered because we simply can't believe someone as FREAKIN' GORGEOUS as Captain Jack is giving us the time of day. Because clearly he is, we forget that he does this to all the girls. When the bluster of the night of sound-tracked love is through, the sword is gone. The rum is gone. The dirty dishes are there, the dirty sheets, the Visa bills. How did that happen to my story? I had THE COOLEST MOST AMAZING GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL ever. Why is my story gone?

- Our ego wins. He likes ME. He really really likes ME. The ego jumps on board with that, oh ye of the mousy brown hair and middle aged bosom, and says, "Oh yeah. Sign me up. Paparazzi? I'm right here." When this happens, we reflect back only the spectacle in front of us. We reflect back our need to be seen, to be good enough, smart enough, and pretty enough. We begin to exist through the eyes of others. Our center rises and falls based on external forces. That empty reflection rusts us.

- The seductive idea is exactly that: The Seductive Idea. Follow it. Only a fool would say no, no matter how many women have gone before you. But keep your center. Don't let the lure of the magnificence of your Seductive Idea, the promise of book reviews by that oh-so-powerful New York Times, the dream that Oprah will revive her book club just for THIS MOST AMAZING book keep you from seeing the actual book.

- The Seductive Idea splashes fire. We can't help but notice. Don't mistake the illusion for the steadily burning center. Too often we'll chase sparks because they're bright and loud and new. The work of writing doesn't live in the sparks. It lives in the coals.

- Pay attention to what is left when the fire burns out. Rather than blame the Seductive Idea for being exactly what it is: A Seductive Idea; instead, ask yourself what it gave you, not what it took. What were you questioning when you fell into its web? What were you searching for? And now, that he took his rum and his sword and his hair and left, what are you still asking? That may be the question of your novel.

- That explosion of seduction struck a match. Its nature is to burn out. Your job is to be thankful for the flame, and to then determine what you can do to sustain it after he's well on his way to another gal. What passions did he light? Explore those.

- The gift of the Captain Jack Phase is the afterglow, not the initial first blush of lust. He leaves you in the dark, panting, vulnerable and real. It's when he leaves, that you can write. Don't chase him. He won't come back. He's not supposed to stay. Wrap yourself in his abandoned nightshirt. Touch the place on your cheek he stroked on his way out your door. But don't chase. Stay still. Stay rooted in the rubble of what he burned. Dig there for your story's truths. Dig there for your glowing embers, and when you've turned them all over, cooled them with nouns and verbs and breath, take the ash and spread it in your garden. And wait. When Captain Jack knocks again, let him in. Look him in the eye. Hand him your pen and ask, "What are you about? Take off the makeup. Take off the braids. Take off the bandana. Who are you?"

The answer is your novel.
Go ahead and watch, ladies. Gents, I won't tell. Life's too short not to honor beauty.

And when you're done watching (and whatever else you feel compelled to do), write directly into that fire. Use the tip of the coal to scratch the words on the paper. Take that cooling fire and make your art. Not Captain Jack's art. Not the New York Times Book Review's art. Not Oprah's art.

Captain Jack came for you. Wouldn't it be a shame if you didn't listen?